Interview : Malignant director James Wan

The “Saw” director returns with a creepy new film, now showing in cinemas

Credit: Matt Kennedy/Warner Bros.

*Potential spoilers for Malignant ahead 

Malignant releases to the sound of the horror community screaming “what the heck did I just watch!!?” –  in the best way possible.

As an aficionado of classic horror, it’s thrilling to see director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious) bring to life his Giallo-inspired release. Before the release of Malignant (in cinemas from October 21), SCARE was given the opportunity to discuss the film with the adored genre filmmaker, in turn discovering how the film was brought to life with love, passion, and a brilliant imagination.

After directing superhero jaunt Wonder Woman and action blockbuster Fast & Furious 7, the Australian filmmaker returns to the director’s seat for a bonafide horror film. “You can take the boy out of horror, but you can’t take the horror out of the boy”, the Melbourne-bred director states.

Wan, who relocated to Los Angeles after the success of Saw in 2004,  is known for making some of the most atmospheric and unsettling supernatural films seen to date. With breakthrough films like The Conjuring and Insidious, we know what to expect from Wan – something that gets under your skin.

Malignant is no exception to this, as Wan explains : “I think part of the reason, what I tapped into with my sort of ghostly supernatural films is that the simplest thing, like a door creaking open, and it’s not like you are sleeping at night and then you close it to open it up.”

Malignant has that simplicity that we have grown to love about Wan and his unique interpretation of the supernatural.  Applying the structure again here really results in a ball of fiery horror goodness. Wan, with Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper, knows how to get the attention of his audience with something both creepy and original… turned up to eleven.

The film’s opener suggests we’re in ‘haunted house’ territory, a concept that Wan is all too good at playing with.

“I’ve made objects like a doll or whatever come alive, and that’s why I’m very much drawn to the hunted house sub-genre because it allows me to allows me a strong foundation to play with all those. Leans on ideas. And, um, I don’t know. I think it’s the more mundane things. The everyday things that make it scarier for me.”

The haunted house scenario dissolves, giving way to an insanely fun and freakish third act that grabs the steering wheel and yanks it off onto another plane of existence.

The former RMIT student has an ability to go against the grain and customary traditions of most genre films.

“Malignant wants to break outside of that box. It’s a genre movie, but it’s also something that wants to be very, you know, it’s very punk to some degree, it kind of wants to go against the system if you will.” 

Malignant is a love letter to those fun, original horror films the early to mid-’80s. I found myself laughing hysterically at moments throughout the film because I recognized the beauty and the insanity in a scene. There is a moment in the police station where villain Gabriel launches a chair at the police, and I couldn’t help but cackle and scream “whaaaaaatttt…..?!.” But therein lies the beauty of Malignant, the chaos that is so well blended together shines through in humour and ridiculousness. Wan referred to the film as “a genre blender… my head being that blender, they have absorbed all these things and once the juice that comes out at the other end is this movie Malignant.”

The most emphatic aspect of Malignant is the wonderful influences that Wan has drawn on to create a villain and film narrative that is so captivating to watch. Here, the co-creator of the Saw franchise explores his love of Giallo films – those films that are tucked at the back of your local VideoEzy with the weird, enticing cover art. Wan says that he has “harboured the desire to make a Giallo film for a long time… when this story came along, to me it felt like a perfect marriage… the perfect James Wan marriage of what a Giallio movie would be because I didn’t want to do a traditional Giallo film.”

Twisted into the perfect Wan representation of a modern Giallo, the creeper feature is also inspired by  Argento, Bava and De Palma.

When it comes to supernatural villains, this film’s foe ‘Gabriel’  is an out-and-out delicious ode to Giallo villains.  The last 30 minutes of the film had me in the throws of some of the best-choreographed action and fight scenes that I have seen in a long while. As a fan of the action genre and especially ones with great fight scenes, there is a fight scene in a jail cell that left my jaw on the floor. When asked about Gabriel, Wan said that “how scary would it be to see something that is real quote-unquote real, but everything it does, is it backwards?… It moves backwards. And like literally, you know, he lives on the back of someone’s head and he comes out of it, takes over her body and he becomes his own entity.”

Although Malignant was due for release in Australia earlier in the year, the pandemic held it back from a theatrical release until October 21st. Post-production was a retrospective time for Wan, giving him more time to look over the film.

Wan says that the pandemic allowed him “time away from the film where I could come back and reassess the film and then kind of go, oh, you know what?… I think I’m showing too much here or I’m giving my cards up straight away… I think the movie is a buildup towards this crazy third climax. I should really hold certain things back.”

Wan successfully holds those cards close to his chest so that we can be blown away by the third act, believe me. 

Being able to watch an Australian horror movie filmmaker create such a beautiful and insane piece of cinema is inspiring. Being a bystander, watching James Wan develop into an influential filmmaker has been an absolute privilege, and it gives me hope as a small-town Australian horror lover. Maybe more of us Aussie’s can make an impact an impact on the horror world?

Malignant is now showing in Cinemas across Australia

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